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Tyrants and Radicals

by Bryan Gibson (author of The Pocket A-Z of Criminal Justice)

(page 4 of 4)

Who Will Prosecute Tony Blair et al?
Lawyers of a radical or questioning frame of mind are perhaps unlikely to find themselves in quite the predicament that John Cooke did but, whenever there is a serious challenge to the status quo, the radical thinker, and especially the activist, places himself or herself at risk of the full might of the law or of being marginalized or sidelined in other ways. In bad regimes he or she may pay with his or her life, have no greater protection than a member of Saddam Hussain’s defence team (several of whom were murdered), or maybe a non-compliant Russian journalist: the lesson of history from Stalin, to Hitler, to Pol Pot and to Idi Amin. No one can guarantee the continuance of a good and benign regime of course; whilst even our present administration exhibits little in the nature of the kind of tolerance shown towards, for example, the Six Bishops or The Levellers who managed to negotiate their way out of reprisals, even if they are in a minority.

Without specific legislation, the UK has dealt with terrorism in the past until the troubles in Northern Ireland that is, but it is only more recently that anything in the nature of all-embracing and somewhat flexible laws have been enacted, that have such hidden potential across more general territory that your everyday radical (for which read terrorist when the pressure is on) must think hard before risking being placed an some secret list of undesirables.

There have, however, been no serious suggestions concerning the arrest of our present Queen (although there was some vague talk of one plot or “contingency plan”, I think it was labelled, a few years ago) and even the most diehard republicans do not appear to advocate the sharpening of the axe as opposed to an “exit strategy” for the Windsors. It would seem to be doubly ironic of course if Charles III were to fall victim to it. One problem now is that any latter day Oliver Cromwell or John Cooke would doubtless be on a hiding to nothing from the start: under surveillance, phone tapped, computer hacked, home, office, workplace or chambers bugged, bank account, medical records and other private dealings under scrutiny by the Serious and Organized Crime Agency (SOCA), Revenue and Customs in full flow, working in partnership with a host of other law enforcement agencies and informants to share data and “harry, hassle and hound” him or her. A modern-day Cooke’s assets (such as his were) would be seized or frozen, Solicitor-General or not.

But there has been talk of bringing a prosecution against Tony Blair, UK Prime Minister as he completes his ground-breaking decade in office: either for declaring war on Iraq illegally and/or for selling honours contrary to the legislation introduced in the 1920s to curb his predecessor David Lloyd-George. Both the present claims no more than allegations, of course. The latter, honours, investigation is now at an advanced stage and it is interesting to note the debate that has arisen over the decision-making process. Lord Goldsmith QC, the Attorney-General, cabinet minister and said to be a friend of the Prime minister is, at the latest count, to be involved in some way in this (if also, according to the Department of Constitutional Affairs’ rethinking his position and likely to take a back seat); the head of the Crown Prosecution Service and Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and some others having declared their interests and opted out. Perfectly honourable, but John Cooke would have enjoyed this. Maybe this is not really about radicalism, but it does touch on the challenges faced by any lawyer who would take on those in high places. It is of the same genus perhaps and in the modern world tenuous connections are all that is needed. It is also worth noting that quite a number of those in high places caught up in the honours investigation have been hoist on their own petard in terms of new police powers of arrest, fingerprinting, search and DNA-sampling, etc, that, presumably, were only really intended to apply to real criminals, suspects proper and other people.

The Dying Embers of Dissent
It may well be of course that, with its articles on radical heritage, the Guardian, like Cooke the lawyer, pamphleteer and espouser of dangerous causes, is pushing the envelope. Having learned that it is now an offence to glorify terrorism, it has begun a historic and provocative dance around the dying embers of dissent. Just as these new laws are set to destroy aspects of our history unless past radical events are spoken of in hushed, derogatory or largely neutral tones, that newspaper’s editors appear to have set about a campaign to achieve the very opposite, and that could, at the flick of the same switch that turns other people into terrorists, see its editors in gaol. Another body to swell the prison statistics. Another radical to share a cell with the Prime Minister, perhaps? The editors proud descendants of Daniel Defoe, John Selden and other diehards of freedom of speech; the (by now one assumes) ex-Prime Minister scrutinizing his sentence plan and pondering the words “in denial”.

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© Bryan Gibson 2006. This article appeared in Justice of the Peace in February 2006

The Pocket A-Z of Criminal Justice is now available in colour paperback.

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